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Story: Asian conflicts

After the Second World War, the emergence of the Cold War – along with decolonisation – led to a number of conflicts in Asia. New Zealand sent troops to fight alongside other international forces in Korea and – more controversially – Vietnam.

Story by Ian McGibbon
Main image: New Zealand infantrymen in Vietnam, 1969

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Post-Second World War influences

After the Second World War, the Cold War developed, causing tension between the Soviet Union and its former Western allies, led by the US. Many former European colonies were also becoming independent nations.

Korean War

Korea had been a Japanese colony since 1910. After Japan’s surrender in 1945, Korea was occupied by Soviet forces in the north and US forces in the south. Separate governments were set up in the north and the south.

In 1950 the communist northern government invaded the south. The US sent in troops, and New Zealand joined a United Nations multinational force. Fighting finished in July 1953, but a peace settlement was never achieved. New Zealand troops were in Korea until 1957, and 45 died.

Involvement in the Korean War was not controversial with New Zealanders, and the war led to a boom in wool prices, benefiting farmers.

South-East Asia

In 1954 New Zealand became part of the South East Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO) to plan the defence of South-East Asia.

New Zealand forces took part in Malayan Emergency operations against communist fighters in Malaya from 1949. From 1964 to 1966 New Zealand fought Indonesian incursions into Malaysia.

Vietnam War

The French, who had colonised Vietnam, were defeated by Vietnamese nationalists in 1954, leaving a communist government in the north, and in the south a US-supported government – which was soon challenged by Vietnamese communists. The Americans believed that if South Vietnam became communist, so would the rest of South-East Asia – the ‘domino theory’. Despite US pressure, New Zealand preferred to send humanitarian rather than military aid, and stationed a medical team in South Vietnam from 1963. The US sent troops to Vietnam from 1965, and New Zealand reluctantly provided a small force. However, many New Zealanders opposed involvement in the war. When the US began to withdraw troops from 1969, so did New Zealand.

Some New Zealanders who served in Vietnam felt that their contribution had not been recognised, and some had health problems due to use of the defoliant Agent Orange. In 2008 Prime Minister Helen Clark apologised to Vietnam veterans.

Later Asian wars

New Zealand has also served in:

  • East Timor (from 1999), where there was civil unrest as the country became independent
  • Kuwait, after Iraq invaded in 1990
  • Afghanistan, supporting the US to fight the Taliban.
How to cite this page:

Ian McGibbon, 'Asian conflicts', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/asian-conflicts (accessed 26 June 2017)

Story by Ian McGibbon, published 20 Jun 2012, updated 27 Feb 2016